Given the scope of its efforts, no one can doubt the sincerity of the insurance industry’s efforts to improve driver safety. Indeed, the laws mandating the existence of seat belts and airbags in the car you drive are largely attributable to dogged lobbying by the insurance industry.

Yet, better machines are only half of the safety equation. The combined efforts of safety engineers are often no match for a single, determined lunkhead with a smartphone and the overwhelming need to update his Facebook status while driving. Stupid people, it appears, tend to do stupid things.

As my colleague Alex Vorro noted earlier this week, some 41% of respondents to a recent AAA study admitted to having fallen asleep at the wheel at some point, with 10% saying they've done so in the past year. The numbers on distracted driving are equally as grim with an estimated 6,000 people killed in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, 25% of all police-reported traffic crashes now involve a distracted driver.

Thus, the industry is engaged in a variety of efforts to improve driver behavior. Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co. is taking a hands-on approach with its Family Driving Challenge. Held in 38 cities across the country, the events take teams comprised of parents and teens and puts them behind the wheel through a closed driving course while they simultaneously deal with distractions such as phone calls, texting and rowdy passengers.

In addition to such soft measures, the industry—through associations such as the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America—is pushing for distracted bans at the state level. On the federal level, the Distracted Driving Prevention Act would encourage more states to ban texting while driving.

Yet, even as it is now becoming illegal to text while driving in most states, a new study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that there are no reductions in crashes after such texting ban laws had taken effect. What’s more, the study charted a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage after the bans had begun.

"Texting bans haven't reduced crashes at all,” notes Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted.”

Lund speculates noncompliance is a likely reason texting bans aren't reducing crashes, with younger drivers the most likely to shrug off these bans. While the fear of a breathalyzer has dissuaded many to give up the keys and call a cab, getting a teenager to put down an iPhone may be a far more daunting challenge. Accordingly, the industry will need to address the problem with a multi-pronged attack, including stricter laws, better enforcement and an ongoing commitment to public education.

Much as technology has created this mess, it also may provide some solutions. Vendors are now offering technologies that promise to lock down mobile communications in vehicles. Automakers also are investing in avoidance technology. Mercedes Benz has been running ads touting its innovations, such as Attention Assist, that seek to counter human error or inattention.

Yet, considering the years of legislative strife it took before seat belts became standard equipment, those hoping that technology will be a panacea to the problems of distracted driving may want to buckle up for a long ride. 

Bill Kenealy is a senior editor with Insurance Networking News.

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